Hell on Wheels 4.10: Return to Hell

 Posted by on October 5, 2014 at 4:09 pm  Hell on Wheels
Oct 052014
Hell on Wheels "Return to Hell" -- Cullen Bohannon and Thomas Durant race to the fire


On the list of things I imagined I’d see on this week’s Hell on Wheels: Return to Hell, a dark meditation on grief did not appear. Yet, grief is a subject of Westerns nearly as often as heroism. The West is a harsh place where life is short, and the bereaved make up much of its population. Grief and revenge, then, go hand-in-hand, and surely revenge is a venerable subject for a Western. “Revenge for grievous wounds” might be a better way of describing the theme of this week’s Hell on Wheels.

Ruth’s final act of revenge, closing out the episode—and the month—beautifully framed, beautifully performed, is just the culmination of all this pain and anguish. Eva, too, took revenge—on the man who raped her, and we are led to believe that the same monstrous man raped Louise as well. Louise’s quieter act of vengeance was simply in looking the other way as Eva committed murder. Revenge for perceived pain even tied the Gunderson storyline into the main action. That’s been a bit of a problem, as his strange journey with Brigham Young has largely been a huge tonal shift the past few weeks, but now, mention the name Cullen Bohannon, and we’re back on a trail of deranged vengeance.

Gunderson and Ruth are opposites. Ruth is a good woman, if a bit fragile and a bit wounded. Her loss and grief bring about an act of madness. Gunderson, by contrast, was insane to start with, or at least, since Andersonville. After that, it’s been his own madness that has caused him to perceive an endless need for revenge.

Everything worked in Return to Hell. It was just the right mix of action, suspense, and character work. In the end, though, it’s all about Ezra.

Almost everything about how this child’s death was handled was perfect. Choosing this moment to eschew gore, showing only the horrified faces of Cullen and Ruth, was absolutely correct, even though Hell on Wheels hasn’t shied from the gruesome in the past. The emotional depth of connection between Cullen and Ruth in their grief was exquisite. It feels almost disrespectful to question anything about what we saw; I have to remind myself that this is television, that someone wrote this.

I question burying Ezra alone, just as I questioned it with Elam. Does this community, alone among all American communities, not hold public funerals? Does Ruth, the pastor of Cheyenne’s only church, have no friends who would wish to stand with her in her time of need? The writers could easily have found other ways of showing Cullen and Ruth sharing a moment. This was not the way.

I question Mickey’s easy assumption that no one would shield a child killer, when Sydney Snow was already a child killer, and Naomi witnessed it, and spoke up about it.

Most of all, though, I question the decision to kill Ezra at all. The incredible coincidence–that he was the surviving victim of Gunderson’s murder of the Dutsons–will now remain forever unknown. There will be no denouement where Ezra recognizes Gunderson, where he is proven false before the Mormons, or where Cullen comes to understand that Gunderson was responsible for the boy’s loss just as he was responsible for Cullen’s. What sense does that make?

I wonder, were they simply unable to find a way to write such a culmination that felt true and authentic? Well, then they shouldn’t have given us such a coincidental character, or they should have brought in better writers.

I’m not railing against a senseless death. I think the death was beautifully written, and created important character movement for Ruth and Cullen, and was a meaningful conclusion to the action. Rather, I’m disturbed that this character, Ezra Dutson, never gets to fulfill the plot laid out for him.

As usual, Hell on Wheels this week gave us stunning visuals, including Ruth holding the gun, Louise’s Tarantino-esque naked feet, smoke billowing from a train, and the above shot of Bohannon and Durant running towards the church.


  8 Responses to “Hell on Wheels 4.10: Return to Hell”

  1. This was an amazing episode. I, too, was hoping for some sort of justice, or Ezra fingering the Swede. But we don’t always get what we want. Sounds like the actor got another project, but aside from that, it was handled well. I’ve been re-watching season 1, and was reminded that Cullen’s son died in a fire, associated with the Union soldier’s raid (hiding in the barn, shielded by a slave woman). I’m also sorry that Ruth didn’t have any friends to mourn with her — it speaks to the lonely nature of her work. But the vengeful part of me was cheering for both Eva and Ruth, even as it shows how damaging the environment has been for both of them.

    • Actor got another project makes sense. I don’t seem to get enough Hell on Wheels in my news feed; I am lacking behind-the-scenes info on these things.

      • I don’t know if he did, but that would make sense. Also, since he’s so young, the on location filming might have implications for his schooling. Don’t know.

        • Dunno, there’s nothing on IMDb and Googling turns up nothing. I think this was plotted, on purpose, not done for expedience.


          And I don’t buy that Ruth is just lonely. Mickey didn’t come to the funeral to grieve Ezra and stand by Ruth? None of the church-goers did? I think it was a filming decision and I think it was a mistake.

    • Many of us have wondered for years about Cullen’s inability to speak his murdered son’s name. We assumed it was so painful that Cullen refused to discuss him openly with anyone but Elam. The birth of William may have assuaged his grief somewhat, because he was able to call his son’s name, Joshua, in answering Ruth’s question about his loss. The gift of another son may be what allows Cullen to decide on finding more peaceful resolutions to conflict.

  2. A round of applause for the makeup artist who did Ruth as she stood there with the gun. Formidable. I’m not one who normally keys into such things unless it is so badly done that it jostles me out of the moment. Ruth with a certain je ne sais quoi that was almost superhero-like and poster-worthy without the common cheese associated with such a figure. It was a nice recovery after so much of the fire looked like amateur CGI grandstanding. I thought Durant/Bohannan running towards the church was too much with the slow motion and stutter frames. I don’t need that kind of spoon feeding in my drama.

    Everything about the Swede’s arc continues to be absurd. I don’t understand.

    I have to admit I’m confused by many things Louise. She’s a lesbian? She’s bi-sexual? And then unless I misunderstood the conversation, she wasn’t bi-sexual but curious? And curious with a man who I was led to believe she despised on some level? But then that she might have also been raped and maybe that was her sole experience with being with a man? And if she was raped, she worked through all that privately and without much residual effect? It’s not so much her sexuality that has me scratching my head, but the timeline and the psychology of all this. Does it feel confusing or messy to anyone else?

    • Sexuality is complicated, but anyplace where homosexuality is deeply oppressed, as in America of this time period, you can expect that any bisexuals will suppress the gay side. In other words, if you have a choice between women and being destroyed for that choice, and men and being accepted for that choice, you’re going to choose the accepted side of your nature. It’s one of the reasons people think bisexuality doesn’t exist–you have to have a very accepting society before bisexuals show themselves.

      That said, it is common for a bisexual to recognize themselves as gay or straight first, and then expand. If Louise understands herself as gay but is bicurious, that’s not unusual.

      Still, I agree the psychology of the rape makes no sense at all, and I think there’s story yet to be told there.

      • I’d have to review, but I think the man who raped Eva earlier this summer may have been the same one who attempted to rape Louise last season. That’s why she didn’t really do anything when Eva killed him.

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